In these modern times, with every convenience at our fingertips, we are seeing record numbers of adults and children with stress and anxiety issues than ever before. Some experts believe we are generally more aware of mental health problems than we used to be, and this may account for the rise in numbers of people seeking help. However, the sheer scale of the problem appears to indicate that we’re not just experiencing an increase in awareness, but a tangible increase in problems as well.
Why is this? Anatomically modern humans haven’t changed much in 200,000 years. But our lifestyle has. We no longer need to survive arduous treks across scorching deserts or over frigid mountain peaks, nor do we need to flee predators or seek shelter from the weather. Rather, we rise long past sunrise, sate our thirst in cafes, don layers of clothing on chilly days, bathe in heated water, drive around in a temperature-controlled vehicle, and reward ourselves if we need to flee our comfort zone for more than a few minutes. In short, many of us now live in what amounts to a perpetual state of homeostasis.
There is a growing consensus among scientists and athletes that humans were not built to exist in effortless comfort. Dutch guru and extreme ice athlete, Wim Hof agrees, stating our bodies are designed to overcome physical challenges and are not ready for a world completely tamed by comfort. In fact, he says our obsession with comfort is literally killing us.
How? For starters, Hof explains we are exposed to too much toxic stress. By this he means our primitive threat (fight or fight) system is activated too often as a response to minor stimulus. Have you found yourself internally raging at having to wait unnecessarily for your coffee? Or had a car cutting in front of you in traffic? Perhaps you seeing the name of someone you’re upset with on a text message? Or found yourself put on the spot by your boss? Pause a moment to compare these modern scenarios with the life or death situations of a caveman’s day. They are minor, right? And yet our biological responses continue to perceive the same level of threat. Stress chemicals (adrenaline and cortisol) are released to give us the ‘fizz’ and impetus we need in the moment. It can feel exhilarating in short bursts — it’s why we ride rollercoasters. Constant triggering leads to the build-up of toxic levels of stress chemicals in our bodies, placing pressure on adrenals and leading to inflammation and chronic disease.
Secondly, Hof says we don’t experience enough positive stress. By this he means we don’t seek out challenges in our environment, we don’t leave our comfort zones, to become a little more human. “We are estranged from our own deeper physiology because we are no longer in contact with nature,” he explains. “But you have to know you have a depth within yourself which needs to be stimulated. If it doesn’t get stimulated it becomes weaker, like a muscle that’s not being used anymore.”
What is the WFM?
The Wim Hof Method has been compared with Tummo (inner heat) meditation and Pranayama (yogic breathing). Yet it is something else entirely. While Wim has studied yoga and meditation for many years, this technique primordially comes from what he terms “cold hard nature.” By subjecting himself to the bitter conditions of nature, he learned to withstand the extreme forces of cold, heat and fear.
There are three components of the WHM: breath, cold exposure and meditation.
- The first part is a breathing exercise which can be likened to controlled hyperventilation. This is, of course, an oxymoron. Hyperventilation is something which happens involuntarily. But just imagine the breathing part, without any of stress triggers that normally cause hyperventilation. The breathing exercise involves taking air into the gut (then moving it to the chest and brain) and releasing the breath (80% only). It can be invigorating, with some people claiming to feel light-headed or on a high. Countering the breathing exercise is breath retention (hypoventilation), which is encouraged after 30 inhales/exhales for as long as it takes for the brain stem to kick in (forced inhale).
- The second part of the method is cold exposure. It begins with cold showers: immersing the feet and then follow with legs, stomach, shoulders, neck and back and finally the head. An initial shock, shivering and hyperventilation is normal. The trick is to remain calm and breathe through it. After a few weeks, WHM followers up the ante to an ice bath or stream/lake immersion (10-12 degrees and an immersion time of 10 minutes). [Note: If you don’t feel cold showers or immersion is for you, try placing a cold towel or splash cold water on your face. This activates the ‘dive reflex.’]
- The third part of the method is training of the mind / meditation. Both cold exposure and conscious breathing require patience and dedication. Through focus and determination, you can master your own body and mind, Hof says. “Fear does not go away by itself. You must confront your fear, mold it, then learn to control it in its own irrational reality. Every human being has the power to do just that. To go deep within and confront your inner being is a powerful act. Going deep and developing the will power is the only way.”
How does it work?
In a nutshell, WHM targets the vagus nerve. Author of The Polyvagal Theory, Dr. Stephen Porges, describes the vagus nerve as the longest in our body; wandering from the brain stem through various organs including the pharynx, larynx, esophagus, nerves of the heart, stomach, pancreas and liver. It also carries out the reverse mission: that is, it receives signals from the internal organs and sends them to the brain to be processed. Its primary job is to mediate the autonomic nervous system or ANS. [Note: Autonomic means “automatic,” which implies we are unable to control it.]
What is fascinating about the ANS is that it is made up of two opposite pathways that constantly send information to the brain: Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).
- Activation of the sympathetic nervous system drives hyperarousal symptoms. It helps the body to mobilize into ‘fight or fight.’ It can be useful to think of it this way: your body is sympathetic to your situation and wants to help. What exactly does it do? Elevates heart and respiratory activity, mobilizes blood to muscle tissue, suppresses non-essential systems, and inhibits frontal lobe functioning. The emotions of fear, terror and panic may come to the surface. The core beliefs driven by the sympathetic activation have to do with safety: “I am not safe.” The stress chemicals adrenaline and cortisol are heavily implicated in the fight or flight response.
- Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system drives hypoarousal symptoms. It helps the body to ‘rest and digest.’ It conserves energy as it slows the heart rate and relaxes muscles. These functions include shaking and trembling, rebound gastro-intestinal activity, and numbing. The emotions of submit, shame, disgust, despair, and guilt may come to the surface. The core beliefs driven by the parasympathetic nervous system have to do with submission: “I am worthless, helpless, hopeless.”
To really grasp how these opposing systems function, we need to briefly review the ‘window of tolerance’ (WOT) as detailed in Dr. Dan Siegel’s book, Mindsight. The window of tolerance is used to describe the zone of arousal in which a person can function most effectively. When you are within the zone, you are typically able to think and feel at the same time–and able to respond to the demands of everyday life without much difficulty. The stress of a traumatic or negative event (or flashback) may have the effect of “pushing” you out of your window of tolerance, into hyper- or hypo-arousal.
It looks like this…
WFM aims to exert control over the autonomic nervous system (and, by default, keep us within the window of tolerance). How?
- Conscious deep breathing increases the amount of oxygen in the blood while at the same time decreasing carbon dioxide. This influences heart rate variability (HRV). According to neuroscientist, Bessel van der Kolk, good fluctuations in the heart rate mean flexibility in the overall system, including the mind (that is, you can think better). Deep breathing also assists with alkalizing the blood (we all know elevated acidity can be damaging to the body). When combined with breath retention, this exercise promotes the dominance of the parasympathetic system, which can help you bring your body back to a calm state of safety.
- Cold exposure puts a brake on sympathetic system activation by raising tolerable stress limits (and, by default, delaying the release of stress chemicals) and consciously controls arousal – that is, recognizing threat and not giving into fear or terror. Learning how to “just be” during the experience has the result of expanding the window of tolerance – that is, when stressors come into your life you can see them for what they are: not life threatening. The spikes up and down are replaced with what trauma expert Dr. Peter Levine calls “flow.”
- Meditation is simply embodied “awareness.” By bringing attention to the body and learning how to control the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems more skillfully, we can increase positive experiences, reducing negative ones, and – if you like – develop the steadiness of mind and equanimity that are vital for contemplative depth and realization.
[A note about the ‘faux’ (false) window of tolerance. Following a traumatic experience (whether single event or multi-event), a person may turn to nicotine/alcohol/drugs or compulsive behaviours to manage their symptoms. It may look like a personal is within their window of tolerance, but they are not. And if they were to remove the prop, the window of tolerance may collapse completely. Some people have found practicing WHM can work as a substitute to addictions, creating space for them to them to then work on symptoms.]
Other positive components of WHM
- Quick system reset (anytime you want to hack your vagus nerve to reduce stress or improve decision-making, do two or three rounds of the breathing exercise or take a cold shower).
- Encourages grounding (connecting with the earth).
- Fosters mastery (critical to development of self-worth).
- Healing and growth through eco-therapy (the benefits of the natural world for mental health have long been established: being part of something larger, physical/mental challenge, patterns in nature, etc).
Learn more here:
- YouTube animation
- Carney, S. (2017). What Doesn’t Kill Us. Scribe
© Felicia Stewart, 2019